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Making Butterfly Accessible to Age Group Swimmers

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Written By: Ceallach Gibbons

I love teaching butterfly to young, age group swimmers - it’s one of the surprising, rewarding challenges that I discovered when I transitioned from coaching senior swimmers to coaching age group athletes. There were so many little habits that frustrated me that I have been able to address by focusing on a few key principles:

1. Swimmers never swim ugly fly. Our drills and butterfly training rely on this principle. I do not want swimmers who are still learning the stroke to struggle through butterfly. I would much rather have a 100 swim where swimmers take 2-3 strong butterfly strokes off each wall and then switch to freestyle, than I would a 50 of ugly, painful, vertical fly.

This principle also informs what events I sign kids up for. I do not sign swimmers up for a 100 fly until they are under :40 in a 50 fly. I do not want swimmers creating a negative association with butterfly. I have found that by waiting to sign kids up for the 100 fly, the 100 fly has actually become a reward. Swimmers are proud of themselves when they’ve earned the opportunity to do the 100 fly, instead of dreading it or viewing it as a punishment.

2. Use dryland to teach kids about the muscle groups that we want them recruiting during butterfly. I use exercises like scapular pushups and Is/Ys/Ts to teach kids how to activate the muscles in their back that we want them using in the pool. On a day with a lot of butterfly, I will actually mirror one of my favorite drills during the dryland portion of practice. The kids will get a chance to practice squeezing their shoulder blades together in the controlled environment on deck, so that when they get in the water the concepts don’t feel new.

3. Focus on sustainable stroke patterns, so that kids are constantly reenforcing good habits. One of the drills that I use the most is Snow Angel Drill, (although since moving to Southern California I have considered renaming it). Swimmers practice a slow fly recovery by dragging their thumb through the water. They lead with their wrists, and squeeze their shoulder blades to practice engaging the muscles in their back. The arms are straight and relaxed. I will usually do this drill with a snorkel and fins. Kids will do a gentle flutter kick, so they can focus exclusively on squeeze through their shoulder blades. The goal is to do this drill with zero splashing. One of my cues with this drill is to “move the arms like a merry-go-round, not a ferris wheel”.

To learn the pull pattern, I will add on Diamond Drill. I only add Diamond Drill after swimmers

have a strong understanding of Snow Angel Drill. Swimmers will bring thumbs and pointer fingers to touch after completing a snow angel, making a diamond with their hands. They slowly drag their hands underneath their body, keeping the shoulders rolled forward and elbows up high. When the hands pass underneath the chest, swimmers should be making two diamonds - one small diamond with their hands and one large diamond with their arms.

This Diamond/Snow Angel drill can be sped up or slowed down to work on many other components of butterfly. I particularly like using this drill to work on breath timing. This drill is also a great introduction to butterfly with a flutter kick.

These focus points have helped me teach butterfly in an accessible and sustainable way to young, developmental swimmers. Some swimmers won’t even take a full stroke of butterfly until weeks into working on these drills. It can feel like slow progress, but the pay off for me has been significant. By focusing on these drills and teaching principles, my swimmers are set up to use the momentum of their pull in their recovery and they understand how to grab water throughout the pull phase of the stroke.

Ceallach Gibbons is the Director of Developmental Swimming at Rose Bowl Aquatics. Ceallach, (pronounced “Kelly”) oversees Rose Bowl’s 250-person developmental team, in addition to coaching 11 and 12 year old swimmers on the competitive team. Prior to coaching full time, Ceallach worked at an Executive Search and Nonprofit Consulting Firm, while volunteering with USA Swimming. While serving on USA Swimming’s national Athletes’ Executive Committee and LSC Development Committee, Ceallach implemented brand new programs that improved athlete representation in the sport and focused on developing young athletes’ leadership skills. Ceallach is a graduate of Wellesley College, where she swam for two years. In 2016, Ceallach completed a solo crossing of the English Channel in 15 hours and 26 minutes. Ceallach currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is training to swim the Catalina Channel.

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